The snow’s melted and nature has transitioned into summer. There’s nothing more symbolic in late spring or summer then visiting one of the “great lakes” in the Sierra Nevada. Here’s some of the most beautiful lakes in California High Sierra that you may not know.
When it comes to the most beautiful lakes in California High Sierra, Mono County is filled with options. From Mono to Twin, there’s too many to count! At the top of this list is the one and only Convict Lake. Named for the historic 1871 shootout on its shores, it’s surrounded by rugged peaks rising 5,000’-ish feet above its surface. This landscape creates a stunning alpine backdrop that everyone must see in person. There’s even tales that Convict Lake is home to a monstrous brown trout named ”Horgon” that few have seen and no one has ever landed.
Just a bit further south near the town of Bishop, you’ll find Lake Sabrina (pronounced sah-Brine-ah). From here you can rent a pontoon from Parchers Resort and Sabrina Boat Landing to cast a line from the waters. Or just take in the massive 13,000-foot peaks surrounding the lake. You can also head out on foot on one of the many Lake Sabrina hiking trails. For a perfect day hike to immerse yourself in the beauty of the High Sierra, head to Blue Lake. The 6.2-mile round-trip endeavor climbs 1,350 feet. And after the climb, from its shores you can take in wildflowers as well as the sharp granite peaks of the crest.
To the north on Sonora Pass you’ll find Relief Reservoir. Another precious stone of alpine lakes on the necklace of the High Sierra. Just a little over seven miles and more than 1,660+ feet of elevation gain, getting to Relief Reservoir takes a bit of effort starting from Kennedy Meadows. Luckily, along the way you’ll be rewarded with plenty to see as the trail follows the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. And then the cherry on top. The giant lake surrounded by granite and the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra crest as a backdrop. It makes for a perfect day outing or a beginner backpacking trip as part of a greater Highway 108 Road Trip.
Heather Lake & Its Buddies
In the Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, there are nearly 3,200 lakes within the boundaries of these majestic reserves. With SO many to see, the question that comes to mind is “Where do you even start?” For us, it’s simple… Heather Lake! With the majority of the freshwater basins being located above 8,000’, this body of water at 9,280’ is a shining example of one of them. And since it’s on the Lakes Trail, for those with a bit more energy, you can check out Emerald and Pear Lakes too.
At nineteen acres, it may be the smallest lake in the Mammoth Lakes basin, but it packs a mighty big punch for scenery and fishing. The Crystal Crag and Sierra Crest hover above the gin-clear alpine waters. The quiet sounds of nature with no motorboats allowed just float tubes, canoes, and the occasional rowboat rentals. Surrounded by tall pines, it even provides protection from the wind compared to its sibling lakes. It’s no wonder Jack Holder from “Secrets of Sierra Fishing” said “Lake Mamie has perhaps one of the best views … of any lake in the world.” There is a certain allure to Lake Mamie that you need to see in person.
Note: Due to the record snowfall this winter Mamie is currently inaccessible via private car and all campgrounds in the Lakes Basin are still closed. Visitors can enjoy the region in a unique way this year by riding bikes, walking up to the lake, or catching a ride on a town trolly.
For the locals in the know… this slice of heaven is sometimes referred to as the smaller version of Lake Tahoe. Flanked entirely by pines and peaks jutting thousands of feet, you can see why some say that. But Bass Lake has its own flavor and style. Its businesses remind you of a cozy midwestern lake with deep roots in tradition but at the same time an alpine oasis feel unlike anywhere else. And due to its lower elevation, the water warms to the toasty seventies in the summer allowing for visitors to enjoy swimming, boating, or wakeboarding without having to don a wetsuit. It’s a perfect summer getaway for families.
Speaking of a perfect lake for a family getaway, Lake McSwain is one of the best kept secrets in Central California. Unlike other lakes in the state, Lake McSwain is an afterbay for the Exchequer dam. That ensures its water levels are not affected by local water conditions. This body of water is known for its trout, salmon, and bass fishing, hosting annual fishing tournaments. It’s also home to the Splash n Dash Aqua Park. You’ll find an impressive flotilla of inflatable obstacles, challenges, slides, and on-water acrobatics.
When people say “Life’s better at the lake”, they may be talking about one of Calaveras County’s lakes – Lake Alpine. Along its shoreline, you’ll find a handful of rustic cabins to rent right on the lake. Enjoy grilling over a BBQ after a day of paddling or hiking up to Inspiration Point. Then hit up Lake Alpine Resort for a frosty pint or a rib dinner. After your weeklong stay, you will say “Life IS better at the lake.”
While good ‘ole big blue deserves accolades and love, there are lakes smaller in size albeit more tranquil during the busy times of year. The hidden gem known as Independence Lake is located between the historic town of Truckee and Sierraville. Considered one of the most pristine alpine lakes west of the Rockies, this body of water is home to one of only TWO self-sustaining populations of the native Lahontan cutthroat trout in the world. And this isn’t any ordinary fish. Sadly, it’s been lost from 99% of its historic range.
Let’s get this straight… Lake Tahoe is the king of alpine lakes. Deep opal waters. Granite peaks standing straight up from the shore. Inlets making it feel less like a lake and more of an inland sea. With that being said, the glistening diamonds on the necklace of Sierra lakes are worth an adventure in themselves including one our favorite day hikes in South Lake Tahoe – Round Lake. Accessed from the Big Meadow Trailhead, the Western flank of the lake features tall red cliffs created from millennia old volcanic best seen from the eastern shore.
Sometimes you want a beautiful lake with enough shoreline that you and your pup can toss a tennis ball. Look no further than Boca Reservoir, just to the north of Lake Tahoe. Along with the opportunity to drive up nearly to the water’s edge on the eastern shore, you’ll find plenty of dog friendly hiking trails surrounding Boca. The west side of the reservoir is also home to some of the most beautiful sunsets in the region from the lookout point at Boca Hill.
Upper Kinney Lake
The Pacific Crest Trail or the PCT for short is a thru-hikers dream running over 2,650 miles. If you want to dip your hiking boot onto this legend for a day hike, look no further than visiting Upper Kinney Lake off of Highway 4 (Ebbetts Pass Scenic Byway). Not to be mistaken for Kinney Reservoir, which is right off the road, this body of water is just over four miles and only gains 623 feet of elevation. The short distance, outside the initial climb, has a gentle elevation gain making it a perfect family outing. In the least populated California county, you’ll be rewarded with a peaceful outing even in the busiest time of year. And don’t forget to stop in Markleeville to enjoy a cold refreshing pint at Cutthroat Brewing.
The goal of this list isn’t to say that these are the most scenic lakes in the High Sierra. It’s rather to spark the wanderlust in your soul and spread the good vibes that summer is upon us! So… ready, set, dip and experience these in person!
Author: Alex Silgalis
Alex founded Local Freshies® in 2014 to be the #1 website providing the “local scoop” on where to eat, drink & play in mountain towns throughout North America. When he’s not writing and executing marketing strategies for small businesses & agencies, he’s in search of the deepest snow in the winter and tackiest dirt in the summer.